Sunday, October 30, 2016

HIVisions: New Order in The Office

By: Kris Tangco

The HIV crisis has gone on for four decades, and for four decades the world has struggled against it. Doctors, scientists, educators, policy makers, writers, artists -- people of all walks and all colors have, in their own ways, sought to make sense of this crisis and its relationship with society. From citizens to states, from medicine to prayer, from cures to cries for reform, people’s visions of how to respond to the crisis are as diverse as the people who bear its scars. The goal of this series is to give you a glimpse of these visions: the roles people of different passions and disciplines have played in this crisis that, as of March 2016 as recorded by the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Bureau, is infecting 25 Filipinos daily.

A hairdresser working at one of the salons operated by the Ricky Reyes Group of Companies filed a complaint against his employer for discrimination on the basis of his HIV status. The management, upon discovering his HIV status, assigned him to a branch that was about to shut down, leading to his eventual termination. The court ruling in the hairdresser’s favor was considered a landmark case in a country where discrimination against people living with HIV remains a serious issue, though it is rarely made public knowledge. It was, at the very least, a victory for HIV advocacy and legislation, showing that the laws in place, dangerously outdated they may be, still have the teeth to help fight against stigma.

In 1998, Congress issued R.A. 8504, to “promulgate policies and measures for the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS in the Philippines”. It prohibits mandatory HIV testing, ensures the right to privacy of people living with HIV (PLHIV), provides for basic HIV/AIDS health and social services, and penalizes discrimination in all its “forms and subtleties”. Section 6 offers a provision for HIV/AIDS education in the workplace, encompassing government and private sectors, requiring all employees to receive standardized instruction on HIV/AIDS, which includes basic information on the privacy of and respect towards employees living with HIV. Section 35 also forbids any form of employment-related discrimination, be it through recruitment, remuneration, tenure, promotion or assignment.

Almost two decades after R.A. 8504, in a time where as many as 25 Filipinos are infected daily, discrimination in the workplace remains unaccounted for. Gerard Seno, an official of the Associated Labor Unions - Trade Unions Congress of the Philippines, said that the organization learned that “many workers with HIV have lost their jobs, had their employment applications turned down, their promotions declined and access to affordable health services denied.” Statistics on the matter may be unavailable, but the stories never run out, and the need for greater public awareness of its impact on all workers has never been more urgent. Most health maintenance organizations (HMO) exclude HIV/AIDS services from their insurance programs, and while some companies do have HIV programs, inclusion of these tests and treatments in their health insurance policies often come at a cost. To date, there are no official figures on the number of registered companies that have HIV/AIDS programs and what these programs offer, making assessment of the bigger picture difficult.

LoveYourself, through its Philippine Business Sector Response (PBSR) arm, reaches out to various companies with the aim of bringing HIV/AIDS education and services to the workforce. Over the past several years, LoveYourself’s PBSR has reached out to the largest corporations, including HSBC, Convergys, and Teleperformance through HIV101 sessions and on-site testing. One company that has been touched by these efforts is PSG Global Solutions, a business process outsourcing company. We talk to Kriska Pineda from PSG Global Solutions’ Human Resource program regarding the company’s HIV program.

Kriska Pineda

PSG Global Solutions: A Basic Model with Flexible Implementation

The program’s provisions are included in what Kriska describes as “a rather basic document”, with guidelines derived from Order No. 102-10 of the Department of Labor and Employment which, among other things, holds employers responsible for providing “appropriate, accurate, and updated information on HIV and AIDS”. The company’s program, according to Kriska, is a response to the government’s call to the business sector. PSG Global Solutions, which drafter their HIV program in 2014, was one of the few companies that answered this call.

Kriska got in touch with LoveYourself through friends, and in the same year, the organization’s PBSR arm conducted its first HIV101 and on-site testing with them. As required by law, an employee assistance program was implemented, which provided PLHIV employees with benefits that allow them to continue working. One employee was granted a working schedule that allowed him to work at home for 3 to 5 days a week. Management saw this as a win-win situation: the employee was allowed to continue working and disruptions to company operations caused by the employee’s absences were minimized. The arrangement also made it more convenient for the employee to pursue treatment.

Despite having a written HIV program, Kriska admits that PSG Global Solutions does not have employee assistance programs specifically addressing needs of people living with HIV (PLHIV). But since being infected with HIV classes the person as being inflicted with an illness that may require a long leave of absence, arrangements allowing the affected employee to work from home are possible. And the employee’s company-provided HMO subscription continues for the duration of the leave of absence for up to six months, much longer than what other companies of similar size provide. For the case of the affected employee, the company intends to hold the policy until doctors deem the employee fit to return to his or her regular routine.  

But the company still allows room for discretion, Kriska explains: each situation is evaluated on a case-to-case basis. This means that the arrangements for the employee mentioned earlier will not necessarily be applicable to everyone. But this does not mean the implementation of their HIV program is inconsistent: only that management requires a certain flexibility in evaluating each case, balancing the sustainability of the services provided with the employee’s welfare.

Performance and Sustainability

Kriska tells us that PSG Global Solution’s main focus is work performance. At the end of the day, performance determines whether an employee will be kept, promoted, or be reassigned. That is the bottom line: whether or not the employee lives with HIV is irrelevant. Their HIV program’s main goal, therefore, is to guarantee the tenure of the PLHIV employee. The performance of the employee is the primary consideration for tenure-related matters including promotion and appraisal. In other words, health conditions such as HIV/AIDS are not bases in evaluating an employee.

“The lone employee who tested positive has always been ranked well for his work performance,” Kriska mentions several times during our interview. The company’s HIV program has allowed the employee to continue working, his skills and work ethic allowing him to continue contributing to the growth of the business. Furthermore, the company discourages discrimination in general and fosters an environment of acceptance by focusing on individual performance.

And HIV/AIDS issues aren’t just the concern of individual companies: they affect entire economies. Governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, which was significantly affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, understand its effect on a nation’s coffers. Several countries in the region have experienced as much as a 4% reduction in their gross domestic product (GDP) due to HIV/AIDS, which when left untreated cripples a nation’s workforce, disrupts communities, strains public health services, and reduces the taxable population, among other things.

But the investment can come with great returns, according to some research. A study done by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), for instance, estimates that a company can have a return of 3.00USD for every 1.00USD invested in comprehensive employee welfare, which should include HIV/AIDS services. Multi-national companies like beverage giant Coca-Cola and automaker Mercedes-Benz have put HIV/AIDS initiatives in place, which include employee welfare programs and community-based partnerships, owing to the insight that strong HIV/AIDS initiatives also contributes to the bottom line.  

One can think of other scenarios with other conditions that compromise the employee’s ability to work well. In practice, HIV is not radically different from other conditions usually covered by HMOs. Labor laws require companies to provide adequate support by ensuring that the coverage of the subscribed health insurance policy is fully granted. With earlier detection made possible through regular testing and improvements in the government’s HIV/AIDS treatment services, management of HIV/AIDS is no longer sufficient grounds for dismissal. At best, early treatment of HIV will mitigate the replication of the virus and reduce, if not mitigate, symptoms and complications brought about by being infected by the virus.

Receptiveness to Further Improvements

Earl Patrick Penabella from LoveYourself's Caravans gives a talk in one of the organization's events

Kriska describes PSG Global Solution’s workforce demographic: the average median age is 26 years. The culture of the young work force allows it to look forward and be more open, Kriska believes. Coupled with a strong company policy against discrimination of any kind, the management was more than supportive of the HIV program.

Despite the success we’ve discussed so far, Kriska still admits that there is room for improvement. No HIV101 awareness programs, for instance, were conducted in 2015. “It’s about time we renew our collaboration with LoveYourself and make these awareness sessions a regular thing again”, Kriska says. As times change, it is important to keep abreast with developments related to the crisis.  In addition to inculcating knowledge about HIV/AIDS and the need to manage one’s health in the workforce, regular HIV101 sessions keep companies up-to-date, allowing management to make informed decisions about HIV-related cases. And having a policy that makes HIV/AIDS programs an institutional mandate ensures that advocates in the workplace have a legal basis for ensuring that these successes are sustained.

Awareness programs, similar to talks and campaigns organizations like LoveYourself has provided to companies like PSG Global Solutions, educate people about the psychosocial and biological aspects of the infection, enabling people to form ethical and evidence-based perspectives to combat stigma. Ideally, these programs should discuss the importance of timely testing, allowing earlier access to treatment, minimizing effects of the disease on people’s careers and finances, and relevant support systems such as health insurance.

While discussing other possibilities, Kriska’s face lit up as she mentioned the company’s interest in training some employees to become in-house peer counsellors for employees getting tested and for employees who already live with HIV. The potentially unique setup would bring the services of community centers right into the heart of the workplace and will offer employees the convenience of not having to travel to these centers. “The company has learned to become more open and accepting”, she said. And with openness, innovation in the service of people’s well-being can flow more freely, benefiting not just people living with HIV but everyone around them. And everyone profits.

Note: As of October 2016, Ms. Kriska Pineda is no longer connected with PSG Global Solutions. Interviews for this article were done in March 2016.

Photos: Facebook/LinkedIn Profile, Ms. Kriska Pineda; PSG Global Solutions Corporate Citizenship Page; LoveYourself Caravans.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Volunteer Spotlight: MGWP 2016 Candidates from LoveYourself Khalil Vera Cruz, Jesse Regin Nacilla, and Jerome Lacsa

LoveYourself volunteers and Mr. Gay World Philippines 2016 finalists Khalil, Jesz, and Omie share their pageant experiences and discuss their advocacies, proving they have the brains and the brawn.

By Ruben Jay Alvarez, Gian Geronimo, and Jean Natividad

The UP theater was abuzz with excitement. It was the Mister Gay World Philippines 2016 finals night, and 33 dashing candidates from all over the country were vying for the number one spot. Among them were Christian Khalil Vera Cruz, 33, of Zamboanga del Sur; Jesse Regin "Jesz" Nacilla, 27, of Cebu; and Jerome "Omie" Lacsa, 30, of Rizal.

Khalil, a certified public accountant, finished 2nd runner-up. Jesz, a licensed physiotherapist, and Omie, a talent acquisition manager, made it to the top 10 and top 15, respectively. All three are also LoveYourself volunteers contributing in their own unique ways to the HIV education and prevention advocacy. All have made the LoveYourself community proud by showing substance and passion above all else.

Moreover, 2nd runner-up Khalil Vera Cruz joins Mr. Gay World Philippines 2016 winner Mr. John Raspado and 1st runner-up John Bench Ortiz as ambassadors of LoveYourself's upcoming mass screening event, Incognito 2.0.

Read on to find out their motivations for joining the pageant, the causes they support, their thoughts on love and relationships, and more.

What made you decide to join Mister Gay World Philippines 2016, and how did you prepare for it?

K: I have always been passionate in voicing out my concerns and strong opinions on LGBTI rights, fighting against LGBTI bullying and hate crimes, and raising awareness on HIV and AIDS. Knowing the vision and mission of the Mr. Gay World Philippines (MGWP) Organization, I realized it’s a good platform for me to champion my advocacy called #AcceptanceWithoutExceptions.
I went through a holistic preparation for MGWP. Physically, I had to go through a strict dietary and exercise routine. I tried to eat healthy (I love eating Toblerone and Reese’s, so it was a struggle) and hit the gym at least five times a week with my trainer. Emotionally, I had to continually boost my confidence--through the support and love of my family, especially my mom, my relatives, and friends--since this was my first pageant. These support systems allowed me to stick with my advocacy despite all the challenges like time constraints at work and my personal life. In terms of mental preparation, I worked closely with my friends who are deeply involved in LGBTI rights and had knowledge of LGBTI bullying and hate crimes in order to supplement what I already know, which is more on HIV and AIDS. The dialogues I had with these people allowed me to clearly understand the issues and drove my spirit in talking about my advocacy. Much of the learning, though, was also closely linked to my experiences as a young gay growing up in a very traditional society. This early exposure to these issues helped in shaping my advocacy.

J: I was fascinated by this pageant even way back in my college years, but I never really tried joining one. A co-volunteer from LoveYourself, Inyaki Yuson, who eventually became my handler, proposed that I become MGWP 2016's Mr. Cebu. That time, I thought he was just trying to flatter me. It was just three months before the pageant when he finally got to convince me, so I really didn’t have much time to put myself into the right form. In any case, I just decided to rise to the challenge, seeing it as personal fulfillment.

O: I joined MGWP 2016 to put my advocacy to the next level by influencing a bigger audience and to change how people see gay pageantry. More than the entertainment value, MGWP can be a platform to rally advocacies concerning the LGBT community.

To prepare for the pageant, I engaged in boxing and Muay Thai to enhance my physique along with a healthy diet. I also had the courage to go out as gay man through social media to promote my advocacy, which is SWAG or Self-Worth Among Gay men and women. Reading news and related information concerning the LGBT community became my morning routine to equip myself with information that I could use for the pageant.

Khalil Vera Cruz, Zamboanga del Sur, MGWP 2016 second runner-up

Describe your MGWP 2016 experience. What was the most challenging part and the most rewarding part?

K: The challenging part of my MGWP experience was managing my time. Days leading to the pageant, I had to travel to two countries for work. Because of these travels, I missed a few important pre-pageant events, including the press presentation where all of the candidates were announced to the media. Despite the time constraints, I always did my best to be visible online and to continue talking about my advocacy. I wanted people to understand that my participation in the pageant was not merely a battle of physical beauty but a fight for important issues for us in the LGBTI community.
The rewarding part of the MGWP experience was knowing and learning about the lives of the other candidates. While it was difficult for me to manage my time with the pre-pageant events, I still managed to learn a lot about the stories of my co-candidates. I actually learned a lot from their experiences, which inspired me because these amazing people have also been experiencing the very concerns I am fighting for. Additionally, I'm glad I was awarded 2nd runner-up because I am still able to talk about my advocacy during the interviews John, Bench (the two other winners) and I do with different media outlets.

J: I’d like to think of this experience as one of those rare opportunities I’d really like to cherish. Just to be able to bask in the limelight, so much preparations behind the scenes were required. I’m from Cebu, so the traffic in Metro Manila also required some getting used to. It was really challenging. On top of the traffic, we had media guestings, sponsor visits, and other activities. I had less than six hours of sleep every night for the last three weeks.  

O: The most challenging part would be multi-tasking. I am a corporate guy during weekdays and the MGWP activities were usually held weekdays, thus I missed out on a lot of the activities. Also, I wasn't out as a gay person to my family, but because of the pageant, I was able to send that message across and became out and proud.

The most rewarding part was the support from friends and loved ones, most especially from my family. Seeing their Facebook likes and comments meant that they accept me for who I am. It feels good to be who I am, even to those from whom I used to hide my true sexuality.

Jesz Regin Necilla, Cebu

If you could change any part of your performance in the pageant, which one would it be and why?

K: I guess none. I think any flaws or uncertainties I experienced during my pageant performance define who I really am. This was my first ever pageant experience. I believe there were certain situations where it might have shown, but I believe these little details defined me in that pageant. I believe I did my best, which was all worth it especially after bagging 2nd runner-up.  

J: Since I've never joined a pageant prior to MGWP 2016, I could definitely use a lot of improvements, like the way I walk on stage or properly projecting confidence. One of my motivations in joining the pageant was being forced to speak in public, and I have to gain confidence in doing that.

O: I guess if I had the opportunity to attend all the activities that were plotted during weekdays, maybe I had a higher chance of winning. I needed to prioritize work since I am an employee.

How could pageants like MGWP advance HIV awareness and other important LGBT causes?

K: Pageants like MGWP catch a lot of media attention. I believe the media is a very strong and influential agent in changing perceptions and behaviors. The media is also an effective tool in getting advocacies heard in different agencies, especially the decision makers in the government like the Congress. Hence, I always made use of MGWP as a platform and avenue for me to talk about my #AcceptanceWithoutExceptions campaign and what we, the LGBTI community, can do and what we need from the rest of the community and the government.

J: One of the goals of MGWP is to enable Filipino gay men to show the world how capable and talented they are. All of my other colleagues who also competed in the pageant - such as Khalil and Omie - pushed HIV awareness to the mainstream arena. I think we were able to show the public that we have a beautiful advocacy, that HIV awareness can be part of the daily narrative in our society, and that we can end the stigma of HIV.

O: Pageants like MGWP can reach more people and engage them more to participate and support LGBT causes. Filipinos, by nature, are avid supporters of pageants, and through this, we can amplify our message to reach those who don't have access to information.

Jerome Lacsa, Rizal

How would you use your experience in MGWP 2016 to further LoveYourself’s advocacy?

K: [Same as above]

J: By proudly wearing our LoveYourself badge in this pageant, I believe Khalil, Omie, and I generated buzz. We promoted good branding and renewed the interest of MSMs to get involved with HIV awareness and become a LoveYourself volunteer. We demonstrated that more than just an organization, we are also a compassionate community of committed individuals driven to helping oneself and our fellow MSM LGBT brothers and sisters.

O: For me, consistency is something I learned from MGWP. You don't need to join a pageant to do something for the community. You just need to start small and be consistent. These small actions can create ripples of positive change. Counseling, supporting LoveYourself events, being credible advocates, etc. are just some of the things we can do that are simple yet impactful.

When did you join LoveYourself? What inspired you to do so?

K: I joined LoveYourself around  2012, a few years after I returned to the Philippines. It was my close friend, Anthony Decoste, who introduced me to LoveYourself. I remember our first meeting with Chris Lagman; it was in El Chupacabra. (I can remember clearly because I’m a foodie, and I remember places with good food.)
In addition, what inspired me to join LoveYourself was my desire to learn more about HIV and AIDS. When I was young, I made unhealthy and risky decisions that could have exposed me to the virus. That is why I believe that knowledge and awareness is key to solving this problem. I joined because I wanted to be a change agent and an awareness agent, especially to the youth who are vulnerable to unhealthy and risky sexual behaviors. My enthusiasm in helping out the organization grew even bigger when I dated a guy who contracted HIV. During this challenging life event, I was there to offer him love and support. Even though it did not turn into a relationship, this experience inspired me to make more people aware of HIV and AIDS and supporting Persons Living with HIV (PLHIV), as I have seen firsthand the extent of pain my ex-date experienced.

J: I joined LoveYourself in 2012, just a year after it was founded. My partner and I have been friends with Chris Lagman, one of the original and founding members of the organization. I have high respect for Chris as a positive role model in the MSM/LGBT community. Also, my hometown, Cebu, is an urban hotspot with a high concentration of HIV cases.It was very timely to be part of an advocacy that addressed HIV in the MSM/LGBT community.

O: I joined LoveYourself in June 2015. I had a difficult time going through an HIV scare during my past relationship. After knowing I'm non-reactive, I told myself I don't want others to go through the same experience. That's why I'm now part of this organization.

What are your current duties and responsibilities in the organization? What more would you like to achieve in LoveYourself?

K: With my increasing responsibilities at work, my role in LoveYourself has been more of an HIV and AIDS awareness advocate. Currently, I would like to be able to support more the LoveYourself campaigns, especially those in line with my #AcceptanceWithoutExceptions campaign, which are (1) LGBTI rights, (2) LGBTI hate crimes and bullying, (3) HIV and AIDS awareness.

J: LoveYourself operations in Cebu are currently inactive due to logistical limitations and operational challenges. But on a personal level, I make sure to put my CAT (change agent training) into practice by  counseling MSM peers, friends, and acquaintances.

O: I am an HIV counselor, and I also help the events team in terms of marketing and communications. I am also supporting LoveU as an admin.

I just want to be instrumental in reaching more people and educating them about HIV/AIDS. In addition, I envision helping out in creating a stronger LGBT community through self-worth. If every gay man and woman has self-worth, then all issues concerning the community can be managed and resolved.

Khalil Vera Cruz with other MGWP 2016 candidates

Are you seeing anyone now? What are your thoughts on love and relationship? Describe your ideal partner.

K: Love and relationships come in different forms. Love requires commitment. Commitment makes relationships last.
I don’t exactly have an ideal partner. As long as that person makes me happy and we enjoy and explore life together, then he is the right guy for me.

J: I’ve been together with my partner for six years now, even if we couldn't be more different when it comes to personality.
I believe people seek relationships because we long for someone with whom we can share our lives. Sometimes things become too stable that we find it boring, but we feel complete and secure by having an uncompromising witness standing right beside us. I could say that our relationship slowly changed the both of us.
Growing old together slowly exposes our imperfections, and our relationship becomes a journey of transformation, of transcending our original demands. We realize it’s more than just sex; it’s also allowing ourselves to love and be loved. All unions become perfect over time if we slowly transcend towards our intrinsic need as a human being - to love and be loved in return.

O: Love and relationship among gay people is not different from heterosexuals. I would like to meet someone whom I can be with for the rest of my life and someday get married to and have a family with. My ideal partner is someone who is honest, loyal, and respectful. These three qualities will make a relationship last.

What lessons did you learn from being part of the pageant? How did it change you?

K: Maturity is more about listening and looking than talking. It's common for candidates to use the pageant as a platform to impress people. But I've realized that during the times when I was just observing and listening to my mentors and the organizers, among other people, I learned a lot. Because of this, I have become a person who tends to listen more.

Also, photos don't capture everything. I'm still overwhelmed by all the experiences during the pageant. Most of which have never been captured in photos.

Also, pageant preparations are not only about time, money, and things, but also more about people. I learned to invest in people. I've seen who were there behind me supporting me all the way for the pageant. Despite my busy schedules and unavailability, these people continued to support me in my pageant preparations and needs. For that, I'm very thankful. And I've begun to value more relationships around me.

J: Volunteering for LoveYourself taught me to become magnanimous. But this pageant further magnified the importance of this virtue. I heard a lot of nasty stuff being said about me and the other contestants. When dealing with others becomes difficult, I remind myself of the importance of staying calm and being magnanimous. I could say that the pageant made me a better person.

O: You just have to be yourself and stay true to what you believe in. You don't need to pretend to be someone  you're not because being real is your greatest asset. Also, being consistent in what you say and do will make you a credible person and will lead you to success.

Please give a message to your supporters from LoveYourself.

K: Thank you to to my LoveYourself family! The passion of LoveYourself volunteers was my inspiration during the pageant. My journey in MGWP would not have been easy without the solid support of my friends, especially Kent  who led my social media campaign, Cliff who was always there assisting me in almost everything (most especially on those days I’m not in Manila), Harry who helped me with social media, and Patrick B. who helped me reached more audiences with his influence. To my Synergy brothers and batch Magayon – thank you! Antzy, Hern, Princess (Vinn),  Oriel, Blue, Iosif, Claude, Rolin – thank you guys. You might not know it, but our conversations (or your posts on Facebook) helped me in so many ways to understand different LGBTI issues/topics. And of course to Jerome and Jesz, two of the my closest friends/co-candidates in MGWP – thank you guys! I believe we have shown what it takes to be a passionate volunteer. Let us continue our passion to raise HIV and AIDS awareness. The more people we inspire and reach out to, the more we are able to fight and end HIV and AIDS.

J: Let us continue to promote positive change for ourselves, the MSM/LGBT community, and our country.  Embody how we can show love to others by loving ourselves first. More power to all of us and to our organization! I pray and wish for the success and growth of our LoveYourself family in the service of our community. Padayon ug daghang salamat!

O: Thank you to all who supported me in my MGWP journey. I hope I made all of you proud by representing our organization and talking about what we do, as well as educating people on how they can also take part in the same advocacy. We all have our ways to rally our advocacy, be it small or big. Just remember each of us already made a difference by being a volunteer of LoveYourself. I hope we can find more ways to be out there, so people can notice us and create a difference in the LGBT community.

Photos: Khalil Vera Cruz, Jesse Regin Nacilla, and Jerome Lacsa

LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.

Have you been inspired by the courage and commitment of our volunteers? Like us on Facebook and help share our message of positivity and self-worth in your own communities to help fight the spread of HIV.